Producing airpower: the rise and fall of neo-liberalism’s defence agenda

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Neo-liberalism stands out as one of the most potent contemporary political philosophies. Neo-liberal governments re-fashioned states’ economies and neo-liberal ideas came to dominate international financial organizations. Perhaps nowhere are the challenges of translating neo-liberal theories into policy more apparent than in defence. The existing institutions and practices whereby states produce military power are often anathema to neo-liberal concepts of efficiency. Bureaucratic armed forces and national champion defence firms, within this context, clash with neo-liberalism’s ideological hostility to hierarchical-bureaucratic systems and belief that market mechanisms generate efficiency. Neo-liberal governments therefore developed policies for applying the philosophy’s economic formulae to defence. Two broad categories of reforms—enhancing inter-firm competition for contracts and outsourcing activities to the private sector—emerged as central to the neo-liberal defence agenda. Surprisingly, in light of neo-liberal policies’ adoption by militarily active states, no study has systematically examined these reforms’ content and impact. My article fills this lacuna by examining the state—the United Kingdom—that most consistently enacted neo-liberal defence reforms. To preview the conclusion, neo-liberalism did not prove the panacea that proponents espoused. This agenda’s internal logic nevertheless drove policymakers, from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s regime (1979-90) onwards, to compensate for the negative externalities generated by one set of neo-liberal reforms by introducing further market mechanisms. Neo-liberal policies’ initially disappointing outcomes thus resulted in further neo-liberal reforms rather than a reassessment of the philosophy’s suitability to this domain. Nevertheless, each of the neo-liberal defence agenda’s two pillars suffered from internal contradictions that ultimately stymied their application.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)873-891
Number of pages43
JournalNew Political Economy
Issue number6
Early online date18 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2019


  • Neo-liberalism
  • Air power
  • Armaments
  • Political economy
  • Britain
  • Procurement
  • Defense
  • Margaret Thatcher
  • Outsourcing
  • Competition policy


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